Lucid Dreaming: A Particle Accelerator for Consciousness Research
After millennia of philosophical debate, we are on the brink of a breakthrough in the scientific understanding of one of life’s greatest mysteries: the nature of consciousness. Over the past few decades, artificial intelligence, neuroimaging systems, and brain-computer interfaces have transformed the study of consciousness from a theoretical science into an experimental endeavor. But if we ever hope to cross the chasm between ignorance and knowledge, researchers need a method for observing consciousness that is unencumbered by external stimuli. They need, in short, a reliable method for inducing and stabilizing lucid dreams.
THE CHALLENGES OF CONSCIOUSNESS RESEARCH
“Consciousness poses a special problem that is not encountered in other domains of science,” Gerald Edelman and Giulio Tononi—two of the foremost consciousness researchers in the world—wrote in their book, A Universe of Consciousness. “What we are trying to do is not just to understand how the behavior or cognitive operations of another human being can be explained in terms of the working of his or her brain. Instead, we are trying to connect a description of something out there—the brain—with something in here—an experience—that is occurring to us as conscious observers.”
This is what the philosopher David Chalmers has dubbed the “hard problem” of consciousness: bridging the gap between the quantifiable, objective, external hallmarks of consciousness in the brain and the qualitative, subjective, and internal experience of consciousness in the subject.
This is a familiar problem to anyone who has studied quantum mechanics, which has experimentally validated the existence of an “observer effect” where the mere act of observing a system changes how it behaves. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the fathers of quantum physics were the first scientists to seriously grapple with the problem of how to scientifically study consciousness when the observer is always already implicated in the phenomenon.
“I regard consciousness as fundamental,” the physicist Max Planck told a reporter in 1931. “I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.” A few years later, Erwin Schrödinger echoed this sentiment in his book, What is Life?, writing that “consciousness cannot be accounted for in physical terms. For consciousness is absolutely fundamental. It cannot be accounted for in terms of anything else.”
As the progenitors of quantum mechanics saw it, the problem of studying consciousness is that it implies perception or the consciousness of something. In terms of the relationship between mind and matter, Planck, Schrödinger, and many of their peers in the quantum physics community believed that the mind was primary and that the observable world was downstream from our conscious awareness of it. This is what Planck had in mind when he stated that “we cannot get behind consciousness,” a point that was made more explicitly by Werner Heisenberg a few years later. “The atoms or elementary particles themselves are not real,” Heisenberg said. “They form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things or facts.”
This is a stark reversal of the physicalist interpretation of consciousness, which sees it as a phenomenon emerging from the interaction of matter. The quantum interpretation, by contrast, is that the external world begins with our conscious perception of it. Although the quantum interpretation is persuasive and experiments of the observer effect lend it credibility, it also poses a deep problem for the scientific study of consciousness. If the world begins with our conscious awareness of it, how can we ever study that raw mechanism of perception? Much like a photon will collapse from a wave into a discrete particle when it is observed, the objects of our perception are constantly influencing both the objective and subjective aspects of consciousness. Is it truly impossible to “get behind consciousness” to study this phenomenon in the absence of perception of the external world?
LUCID DREAMING AND CONSCIOUSNESS
In 2009, the late Allan Hobson, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, published a paper that put forth a persuasive argument that lucid dreaming may hold the key to resolving this challenge for consciousness research. As Hobson noted, the phenomenon of lucid dreaming—the conscious awareness that one is asleep and dreaming—is deeply paradoxical in the sense that it implies that the dreamer’s mind can be in two states simultaneously. Much like a photon exhibits the characteristics of both a particle and a wave, the lucid dreamer exhibits aspects of both waking and sleeping consciousness.
For Hobson, this unique aspect of lucid dreams offered an exciting opportunity for the experimental study of consciousness. “It may be possible,” Hobson wrote, “to measure the physiological correlates of three conscious states: waking, non-lucid dreaming, and lucid dreaming in the laboratory.”
Unlike many sleep researchers, Hobson didn’t view dreams as unconscious processes but rather as an altered state of consciousness. In his paper, Hobson considered the theory put forth in the early 1990s by Gerald Edelman, who proposed that waking consciousness actually consists of a primary and secondary consciousness. Primary consciousness is what we would typically think of as a dream state: a mode that lacks higher order insight, abstraction, and “awareness of awareness” we experience during waking life, which blends elements of primary and secondary consciousness. Like waking life, lucid dreaming would then involve both primary and secondary consciousness. But rather than synthesizing them as in waking life, the dreamer experiences both modes of consciousness separately.
As Hobson noted, this dual consciousness theory is consistent with brain-imaging data of lucid dreamers that was collected by a team of German researchers in the mid-2000s. The researchers found that lucid dreamers activated the default mode network—a collection of brain regions that many researchers believe may form the neural substrate of consciousness–but non-lucid dreamers did not. The default mode network is of significant interest to consciousness researchers, but studying this brain circuit in waking individuals is challenging because the subjective experience of the individual affects their ability to isolate the neural correlates of consciousness. After all, Hobson pointed out, “it is impossible for normal subjects to stay awake and do nothing while lying in the scanner. They continue to think, to feel, and to imagine. In a word, they are conscious.”
This is where lucid dreaming may have a lot to offer in terms of advancing our understanding of consciousness. Because lucid dreams appear to incorporate two different conscious processes—those of non-lucid dreams and those of waking life—it should be possible to isolate the “waking life consciousness” processes in the dreamer by contrasting them to the neural activity associated with non-lucid dreaming. In a lucid dream, the dreamer has “waking life consciousness” that is free of external perception; they are merely perceiving the product of their dreaming consciousness.
Seen this way, lucid dreams are our best—and perhaps only—hope for “getting behind consciousness” and studying it in its most elemental form. They are comparable to a “particle accelerator for consciousness” in the sense that particle accelerators are used by physicists to study the dynamics and structure of the most fundamental building blocks of matter with minimal external interference.
The idea of using lucid dreams to unlock our understanding of consciousness is elegant in theory, but it has been difficult to realize in practice. The main reason for this, of course, is that lucid dreams are mostly spontaneous phenomena. Although it has been experimentally proven that lucid dreaming is a learnable skill, even experienced lucid dreamers struggle to induce lucid dreams on demand. This makes them remarkably challenging to study in laboratory settings, which has resulted in only modest collections of neurological data from lucid dreamers.
A brain stimulation technology that can reliably induce and stabilize lucid dreams would usher in a new era for the scientific study of consciousness by giving researchers on-demand access to lucid dreams in the laboratory. This is the vision we’re working toward at Prophetic through the development of the Halo, the world’s first device for reliably inducing and stabilizing lucid dreams.